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Children and alcohol: Reaction to the first drink can predict problems in adult life.

22 July 2005

Young people who get tipsy less easily may be at greater risk of becoming alcoholics when they grow up.

Young people who get tipsy less easily may be at greater risk of becoming alcoholics when they grow up.

A new study of the drinking habits of 12-year-old children suggests that those who are least-affected by their first drink are more likely to end up with alcohol-related problems in adult life.

According to Professor Marc Schuckit from San Diego Veterans Affairs Hospital and the University of California San Diego there is a direct relationship between a low level of response to alcohol (needing more drinks to get an effect) and the risk of developing alcohol use disorders. His report appears today in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

Psychologists at the Children of the 90s project based at the University of Bristol interviewed 1100 children about their drinking habits at the age of 12.

Of those, only 7.3 per cent – 80 children - admitted having at least one standard alcoholic drink in the last six months. On average, those children had drunk alcohol on five occasions – although two of the children had drunk alcohol on 30 days.

Most of them had drunk no more than three standard drinks at any one time – although 10 per cent had taken at least seven or eight in one session. A few had drunk so much they blacked out.

Researchers asked the children to tell them how many drinks, such as a glass of wine or bottle of beer, were needed before they started to feel the first signs of intoxication. Sixty per cent of the children said it was less than two drinks.

Professor Schuckit, found that even at the age of 12, there was a direct connection between how intensely they reacted to the alcohol and how much they drank.

He says: “Early in the drinking career, a person may be likely to take alcohol to produce feelings of intoxication rather than for the taste or for feelings of relaxation.

“If intoxication is the desired affect, and if an individual requires more drinks to achieve that goal, the major impact of a low level of response might be to consume a higher number of drinks per occasion.

“The more intense drinking might lead to association with heavier-drinking friends with subsequent more frequent drinking, all contributing to a greater risk for alcohol related problems and eventually alcohol use disorders.”

Academic paper reference

Performance of a Self report Measure of the Level of Response to Alcohol in 12 to 13-year-olds. Marc A Schuckit, Tom L Smith,Iris Beltran, Andrea Waylen, Jeremy Horwood, John M Davis, and the ALSPAC Study Team. Journal of Studies on Alcohol.



  • Professor Schuckit believes that the extent to which a novice drinker is affected by alcohol (The Level of Response) may be genetically influenced. His research has already shown that people with a family history of alcoholism generally need more to drink before they feel signs of intoxication.
  • ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed most of the children and parents in minute detail ever since.
  • The ALSPAC study could not have been undertaken without the continuing financial support of the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the University of Bristol among many others.


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